Connecting with Community Power
Nina Porter, junior secondary education and women's and gender studies major at Northern Arizona University
This fall marks the beginning of my third year participating in a community-based Action Research Team at Northern Arizona University. I became involved in WACBAT—an acronym for the Weatherization and Community Building Action Team—serendipitously through my first-year learning community. Although I entered college without a declared major, I was interested in environmental sustainability, so I signed up for a learning community (Democracy, Social Justice, and the Environment) focused on that theme. A freshman seminar I took through the learning community required participation in one of several predetermined Action Research Teams that had just been formed, and I joined WACBAT to fill that requirement. Inspired by the group's purpose and projects, I have continued to participate in WACBAT on an extracurricular basis.
Focused on community building around green energy, WACBAT spoke directly to my passion for the environment. The team's goal is to increase awareness about and use of green energy technology in Flagstaff's disadvantaged neighborhoods, primarily by connecting people with city and county retrofit programs and a state-wide revolving loan fund to help individuals pay for energy-efficient upgrades. Through these programs, team members build bridges between environmentalists and lower-income communities that could benefit from saving money through increased energy efficiency.
As a member of WACBAT, I experienced community organizing first hand. I helped arrange and advertise community events through door-knocking campaigns, correspondence, and one-on-one meetings with community members, on-campus leaders, neighborhood associations, and local vendors. I participated in meetings and formal presentations that connected WACBAT with the campus sustainability community and the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council. I met with city administrators and spoke in front of the Arizona Corporation Commission to convince its members to mandate that the local gas company start a revolving loan fund for energy-efficient upgrades.
By working with WACBAT, I have come to understand grassroots organizing as a way of tapping into relational community power. Through grassroots organizing, WACBAT has successfully enrolled hundreds of Flagstaff families in the energy efficiency retrofit program, organized the weatherization of several community institutions for greater energy efficiency, and catalyzed the creation of a 2.7 million dollar revolving loan fund for related efforts. WACBAT's work has shown me that people are the roots of society, and locating their needs and desires is the only way to implement meaningful programs that will benefit their communities. Community organizing, where people work collaboratively to create programs and policies, is thus a soulful way of connecting with community power.
Working with WACBAT has taught me not only about the community's power, but also about my own agency as a political actor. Community organizing has helped me understand that I am so much more than a single vote on a ballot, and that by connecting with others I can effect real, immediate change. I have found that democracy means continually acting as a community, for the community, rather than simply casting a vote at election time. I now share this message by mentoring students in the first-year learning community that feeds into the Action Research Teams, encouraging them to cultivate community awareness, become engaged citizens, and tap into their power as political actors and agents of change.
My chance involvement with WACBAT has had a profound impact on my educational plans and career aspirations. Based on my experiences with the group, I have cultivated a passion for social and environmental justice. I have decided to study secondary education and women's and gender studies with the understanding that power resides with the people, and that communities surrounding educational institutions are dense with potential world changers. After all, meaningful change has to come from the people it most affects.
My work with WACBAT has not only influenced my choice of major, but has also affirmed the possibility of continuing my education at the master's and doctoral level. Most importantly, it has clarified my passion for social justice and civic engagement. Working on a community-based Action Research Team has empowered me, given me direction, and connected me with a community that I may not have found without the action research team and our civic engagement work. I am incredibly grateful for this experience.
For more on the Action Research Teams, see Supporting Students through Community Connections in this issue.